Sensation and Perception
Imagine yourself driving along on a sunny day with open car windows. The birds are singing, you feel the wind in your hair and you hear children playing somewhere ahead. Something red bounces onto the street. Instinctively, you hit the brake, and the child running onto the street after her ball is safe.
Human beings and animals can react to input coming from the environment in split seconds. This amazing ability relies entirely on the brain and the intricate interplay between sensory brain areas responsible for abilities such as hearing, seeing, or feeling.
The Sensation & Perception research labs at the Hebrew University focus on how our brain generates a representation of the world around us, combining incoming perceptual information with memory to enable us to act.
Scientists at ELSC are answering questions such as how visual input is integrated with motor planning to enable us to grasp an object, what happens in our brain when we look at others performing actions, and why complex auditory signals may be easier to analyze for our brain.
One avenue of fasniating research at the Hebrew University investigates the brain of visually impaired individuals, showing how brain areas that are normally used for sight are rewired to enable better memory in the blind. This type of brain reorganization, where brain areas take on new functions, shows the great plasticity of the human brain, with important implications for the possibility of neuronal regeneration after brain damage. Additional research has shown that people can learn to recognize shapes by means of especially designed “soundscapes”, activating shape recognition areas in the brain that are usually only activated when we perceive a shape visually. This research shows that it is essentially possible to “see” even without sight!
These investigations may make it possible to greatly improve the quality of life of millions of people, and call for a substantial investment in advanced research tools enabling the study of sensory processing at the levels of single neurons, neuronal circuits, whole brain areas, and the complex interactions between different areas of the brain, which ultimately enable us to act within our environment.
Movement Planning and Control
The motor areas of the brain enable us to act on the information that was perceived and processed. Scientists at the "Movement Planning and Control" laboratories focus on basic questions such as: How is visual information translated for use by the motor system? How do motor neurons learn new patterns of movement? How and where are learned movements stored in motor memory? A special avenue of research is the development of Brain Machine Interfaces, the control of artificial, robotic limbs through a brain interface.
Technological and scientific advances have made it possible to construe robotic limbs which are controlled by commands from the brain's motor cortex, giving people with paralyzed or amputated limbs hope for the restoration of their quality of life. New insights into the workings of the motor cortex are necessary to enable us to create an increasingly seamless bond between the artificial limbs and the human brain. The brain research labs at the Hebrew University continue to play a pioneering role in this exciting field.
At ELSC, innovative research methods are combined with advanced knowledge on the workings of individual neurons to provide insights into the workings of the motor system. This research will eventually make it possible to turn tomorrow's dream of a seamless interaction between the human brain and artificial limbs into today's reality.
Understanding how the brain functions, perceives, enables action, and gives rise to conscious awareness is only possible through an in-depth understanding of the workings of single nerve cells and their interaction. The human brain is perhaps the most complex and extraordinary organ in existence, containing over one hundred billion nerve cells. Every single neuron has the processing power of a small computer, receiving input from thousands of other neurons and calculating which information to pass on. Neurons communicate with each other in neural networks to make us see, think, remember, smell and emote. Every action, from the simple act of biting into a fresh apple, to the more complex process of planning today's dinner, involves many tens of thousands of neurons in different neural networks.
The field of computational neuroscience combines theoretical physics, advanced mathematics and state-of-the art computer technology to create powerful models of working neural networks, which help scientists to understand how the brain accomplishes feats such as storing memories, processing sensory impressions and enabling conscious awareness. Scientists at the Hebrew University have played a pioneering role in this cutting edge field from its outset, and continue to make remarkable advances. One recent model helps explain how networks of auditory neurons can efficiently decode human speech under conditions of varying speed. This research may lead to improvements in speech recognition technology, as well as create innovative treatments for a variety of hearing related problems. Other research has focused on cognitive behavior, explaining why and how neural networks can make us prefer certain choices over others, and can be applied to areas as diverse as economic theory or the psychology of addiction.
Computational neuroscience enables scientists to ask better questions and to reach further insights into the workings of the human brain. Its ultimate goal is the discovery of the fundamental theory of mind, to discover the basic laws which govern the actions of neurons, neural networks and entire brains. Uncovering these laws will enable us to repair damaged brains, to build new artificial kinds of intelligence, and ultimately will provide a fascinating window into how the operation of neuronal networks gives rise to conscious, thinking being.
Consciousness and Cognition
Our brain senses and perceives tremendous amounts of new information. However, not all of this information enters conscious awareness; sometimes, we can see something without being aware of it. At ELSC, scientists at the Consciousness & Cognition labs investigate how information enters conscious awareness, how our brain adapts to new information, and what happens when these processes break down.
Researchers at ELSC use advanced EEG and fMRI brain mapping tools to understand what happens in the brain when we become aware of something. Awareness is also investigated by studying stroke patients with right hemisphere damage, who may suffer from unilateral neglect – an inability to attend and respond to events and objects located on their left side. Other studies examine the remarkable ability of our brain to learn and classify new information, explaining how our brain is able to learn and categorize information from simple comparisons, how new categories may be identified, and how we achieve expertise in identifying faces, names, letters and other objects.
Additional studies focus on the disruption of information processing. Dyslexia, for example, is a learning disorder typically associated with reading and writing difficulties. Research performed at ELSC has discovered more general perceptual difficulties in dyslexia, such as the inability to distinguish between two similar tones, leading to the development of new treatments for dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Schizophrenia presents a much more serious breakdown of information processing ability. Studies conducted with the aid of sophisticated virtual reality environments have shown how schizophrenia distorts the perception of everyday environments, presenting a new tool to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of this serious mental condition.
These and other studies are conducted at ELSC with the aid of a multi-disciplinary research approach and the use of a wide range of behavioral, computational and electrophysiological research tools, enabling scientists to begin to understand the brain at its many levels of complexity.
Scientists at the Hebrew University are making similar advances in diseases as diverse as schizophrenia, depression, and Alzheimer's, and are starting to unravel the mechanisms underlying these illnesses. This complicated kind of research requires insights and research tools from across a large variety of brain science disciplines. The Center for Brain Sciences at the Hebrew University employs outstanding scientists from different disciplines, enables scientists to use the most advanced theoretical, physiological and behavioral research tools, and to cooperate easily and efficiently with each other. The collaborative scientific effort will enable researchers to make significant inroads into our understanding and treatment of neurological disorders in the foreseeable future.